Welcome to Journey to Planet JoCo, an interview series where science fiction and sometimes fantasy author John Scalzi talks to musician Jonathan Coulton about science fiction and science fiction songs.
Every morning at 9 AM from now to May 29, John will talk to Jonathan about one of JoCo’s songs, getting in-depth—and possibly out of his depth—about the inspiration and construction behind them. Which ones? You’ll have to come back every morning to see!
Today John talks to Jon about John’s new album Artificial Heart. Audio and the chat transcript are below.
John Scalzi asks Jonathan Coulton about his new album Artificial Heart.
SCALZI: Hello, and happy Memorial Day. This is John Scalzi for Tor.com. I’m here with Jonathan Coulton. We’re actually recording this well ahead of time, so we are probably doing Memorial Day thingies, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still listen to us because we have something very important to talk about. Specifically, today we’re going to break a little bit from our discussion of single songs and talk about Jonathan Coulton’s new album, Artificial Heart, and his upcoming tour which starts this week, June 1st. Not long from now.
SCALZI: How do you feel about that? Is it always sort of daunting to look at the list of places that you have to go? Because you and I are actually going to be on tour more or less the same time. You’re starting on June 1st, and I’m starting on June 5th. And I’m doing a book tour and you’re doing a music tour, and it’s good that we don’t reverse that because that would confuse people.
COULTON: Yeah. No, it’s a very daunting thing to start that, and I think you and I have similar feelings about touring, which is that the performing part of it is great.
COULTON: Interacting with fans and parts of this community around the stuff you do is really rewarding and wonderful and…but then every other—the travel, and the hotel—
COULTON: —and the driving, and the flying. All of it is blah.
SCALZI: It is, it’s draining. The way that I tell people, and you and I have actually discussed this a little bit, is the whole idea of—the interaction in doing the performing—because what I do is performing as well. I go up and I speak for an hour and then I do Q&A and then I do signing and I call that the performing-monkey mode. Because you go out and you’re high-energy and make sure that people who’ve actually come out to see you are having a good time. And as soon as that’s done basically what you want to do—and especially, because we’re old people now, right? We’re in our 40s, right? You’re like, “I’m done. Time for bed.”
COULTON: Yeah, I would like to crawl into a hole and not exist for a little while.
SCALZI: Right exactly.
COULTON: That’s exactly right.
SCALZI: And so, it’s fun when it happens.
COULTON: It is fun. Yeah, it is. And of course, this is why I’m not good at promoting things. Here I’m talking about my tour and all I’m going to complaining about travelling.
SCALZI: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But you were very savvy and you’ve said right up front, the performing and seeing people is awesome.
COULTON: It is.
SCALZI: So you had yourself covered from right at the beginning, and you didn’t even know that you’d done that.
COULTON: That’s a true thing. If I could just beam myself to a location and do a show and beam myself home, I would do that every day.
COULTON: Because it is great. And it is such a…I don’t know. It’s just a thrill. And, of course, when you see the real rock stars tour, that’s almost how they do it. I mean they’re travelling, but when they have everybody to set up their stuff for them and they just sort of roll off the tour bus and hop on stage for the sound check, and just pick up the guitar that’s been pre-set and tuned for them.
COULTON: And then they sound check for five minutes and then they go out and have dinner, like that’s…sure. That’s doable.
SCALZI: Well, clearly you need to become much more famous.
SCALZI: Yeah, we’re working on that.
COULTON: We’re working on that.
SCALZI: No, I remember the very first time I went on tour, right? Every stop they were like, okay, and here’s going to be your handler at this stop and here’s this other handler and all that sort of stuff at this other stop. I’m like, why do I need a handler? I’m 38 years old. I’m a grown man. I can dress myself and everything. And by the end of the second day I knew exactly what they were saying because after everything was done I was like [babbling]. And this nice older lady was like “Come on, we’re going to get you some food. Going to get you into your hotel room. Somebody will pick you up at 5:30 tomorrow.” [babbling]
COULTON: I know. And it’s totally infantilizing, but at the same time, you’re not even as smart as an infant, so it’s a good thing that somebody is there to infantilize you.
SCALZI: I left it all on the stage.
COULTON: That’s right. That’s right. But I have the added benefit this time around of touring with the band and with an opening act, John Roderick from The Long Winters. So it’s, the fun and—of course when I would tour with Paul and Storm it’s the same thing—the van rides become a lot more tolerable when you have friends that you’re hanging out with, and the road trip aspect, and can have fun elements to it as well.
SCALZI: Right. Actually let’s talk about that because I wanted to ask you this: Artificial Heart, which came out last September, is the first album that you actually recorded with a full band? You didn’t do the Prince thing of doing all the parts yourself. You actually went in and recorded with other folks, and then when you’re touring it is the actual band instead of just a couple of people sitting in as sort of catch as catch can. What is the difference for you? I realize this is the standard rock-star sort of question: What is the difference for you between doing the whole thing solo and doing the stuff with the back and forth of the band?
COULTON: Well, one thing that has changed is that it’s much more of a collaborative effort. You know, I’m not telling everybody what to play specifically, I tell them how the song goes.
COULTON: And then we learn it and we play together until it sounds the way we all like it. And I always felt a little bit unable to bring my ideas to life when I was recording everything myself. Because I can’t play everything as well as I want and so, there were always hard choices that I would have to make and things that I couldn’t make happen because I just can’t play what I wanted to be there.
COULTON: So in that way it was nice to have something to—writing something and then have it grow and change through the efforts and talents of other people. And that’s been a really exciting—if a bit scary—process.
SCALZI: I can understand that. One of the things that people have always asked me is, am I interested in collaborating with people and writing a book? Because sometimes authors will collaborate with other authors and they’ll write a book together. And I almost invariably say, no. And they’d ask why, it’s like because somebody would come out of that thinking the other person was the asshole. That person who was the asshole would almost certainly be me, you know. Knowing myself well enough to know that the whole collaborative thing is actually really difficult for me. That said, there’s still that sort of interest—maybe one day I’ll try it, but a lot of it is finding, honestly, finding the right person, and it’s almost like you have to date around to find the people that you think are going work as collaborators.
COULTON: Yeah, and I think it is a kind of surrender because you have to, you can’t have everything turn out exactly the way you want it. And when you work with a soloist’s perspective, you have so much control over everything, but at the same time it’s like you know, it’s that surrender which is terrifying. But then—so you share the successes with people, but then you’re also not wholly responsible for all of the mistakes.
SCALZI: This is your fault. I blame you.
COULTON: Yeah, exactly. It’s—if one song doesn’t go so well I can say well that was probably because of Marty’s drumming.
SCALZI: You know the author version of that was, “Oh, that was an error introduced by the copyeditor.”
COULTON: Yeah, that’s right.
SCALZI: Please don’t tell any of my copyeditors that I ever said that.
COULTON: Right, that character that nobody cares about? That’s because of the copyeditor.
SCALZI: Right, that’s exactly right. The bad dialogue? That’s all the copyeditor. But that actually brings the point, which is that even as a solo activity that writing is. There’s a whole lot of other people that are involved. I mean, my editor tells me when I’ve gone on too long, my copyeditor corrects my numerous grammatical errors, page designer, cover artist, marketing, I mean just everybody involved, and you don’t realize—even if you’re saying I’m a man alone—how much other people are part of that whole process.
COULTON: Of course. It’s already a collaborative effort. Even if you are the sole author of something there’s a lot of other people making it happen.
SCALZI: Let’s talk a little about Artificial Heart. I have to say, to present my JoCo fan cred here, that when you initially announced that it was going to be available you did the thing where you had the various packages: you could get the download or you could get the CD or you could get the vinyl thing. And I went the whole nine yards. I paid the hundred dollars for the super-mega deluxe package, you know, so I’ve got three T-shirts and I’ve got it on CD, and on a MP3 chip and the vinyl thing. You know that my daughter—I showed my daughter the LP of Artificial Heart and she’d never actually seen an actual LP before, right?
SCALZI: And so I videotaped her, which is a bad term because it was just digital, but I videoed her pulling it out going, “What the hell is this thing?” And I put it up on YouTube and I think it is a up to about 750,000 hits now.
COULTON: Holy cow.
SCALZI: Because it’s a thirteen-year-old encountering the technology of the ancients, as it were.
COULTON: Well, it’s not an unreasonable question when you look at such a thing. How, what? Huh?
SCALZI: But there’s a reason for this other than just talking about my daughter being confused about this. Why did you do all the various levels the packaging? It does seem like that’s the thing these days.
COULTON: Yeah. You know, I wanted to experiment a little bit with the idea of doing pre-sales and having tiered levels of support, a la Kickstarter, that sort of thing. And I also thought it would be fun to have a super-deluxe package, and it was really fun putting to together. My friend Sam Potts is a designer who I convinced to work on with me and he and I sat down and came up with this sort of larger conceptual thing that for me really helped tie the album together as an album.
COULTON: You know, after I had written all these songs one at a time, I took a step back and looked at everything and said, huh, there is kind of a theme going on here. It’s not quite a concept record but it’s, you know, there are the same themes flowing all the way through it. And then when we worked on the design of that superbox it was like, well how can we exploit those themes and how can we spin that out into this larger story? And that was really a fun, creative process on top of the making the album itself.
SCALZI: Yeah, to relate this vaguely to what we’ve been discussing over the last couple of weeks, it almost seems kind of science-fictional. It almost feels—because you had the personality tests that went, as far as I know, went nowhere and all the other things—there really did seem to be a sort of science-fictional tinge to it, conceptually speaking.
COULTON: Yeah, and we ended coming up with this sort of fake corporation, and the box itself became these self-help materials from this program that you had signed up for when you took this quiz. And my friend David Hirmes, who’s a coder and sort of computer artist guy, made this unplayable, unwinnable game based on this collection of symbols that kind of meant nothing. And it was just really fun and—you’re right it is a very science-fiction feel, artificial—this fake universe.
COULTON: And we even set up a fake web site for a fake company.
COULTON: It’s just fun. It’s just a really fun space to play it.
SCALZI: Yeah. The album itself isn’t necessarily science fictional, although my editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, said, “Well, if you’re talking to him about science-fiction things, talk to him about ‘Now I Am an Arsonist’ because I think that’s a science fiction song.” So, I’m going to throw that out to you. “Now I Am an Arsonist”: science fiction song?
COULTON: Not for me.
COULTON: I mean at least that was not the intent. But, yeah, I purposely left that one open to interpretation. For me I’ll tell you that song is about—I was thinking about a person at the end of their lives—
COULTON: —in some sort of facility sort of winding down the last few days and moments of their lives. And it has this very surreal dreamlike quality with memories and confused metaphors and then finally this—I mean, just that title, “Now I Am an Arsonist,” just kind of like burning everything away.
COULTON: So, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know exactly what all that imaginary means, but I love the way it fits together.
SCALZI: I think what he was twigging off of, it’s in some sort of sense a very Philip K. Dick-ian imagery, if you will.
COULTON: Yeah. That’s a good point. And reality is sort of splintering apart.
SCALZI: Exactly. And Suzanne Vega.
COULTON: And Suzanne Vega.
SCALZI: Because Vega is a star, so there you go. There’s your science fiction sort of association. I’m just trying to make my editor happy here. That’s all I’m trying to do right now.
COULTON: No, and you know it’s funny there are not a lot of really science or science fiction or geek themed songs on there. There is “Nemeses,” which is about having a nemesis.
COULTON: Which is a very comic book thing.
SCALZI: Right. Well I mean, but the thing about Artificial Heart, for me, I mean, which by the way. Listened to it, loved it.
COULTON: Thank you.
SCALZI: But the thing about it is, is that I think what you’re doing there is what I actually see some of my favorite artists doing, which is, you move from—there’s a thing that people know you for. So for the next album, you do the thing that people know you for, but then you do some new stuff, and then that all becomes what they know you for. And then for the next album you do what they know you for and then you add some new stuff. And so basically by the time you get four or five albums down the line you’re still doing what they know you for, but what they’ve known you for has begun to change, to transmute, and it seems like for me—while taking away nothing from the science fiction stuff and the nerd stuff and the clever stuff, all of which continues to be there—you are adding newer themes in, as you go along. You’re not just giving people what they want, but you’re giving people what they didn’t know that they wanted before they heard it.
COULTON: Yeah. Well that’s a very generous way of describing it. I mean I have always felt like I can’t—I’m incapable of writing about something unless I actually care about it and want to write about it, so you know, that’s why when people say, “Will you please do a sequel to ‘Skullcrusher Mountain,'” you know, it’s like, I can’t. I’m absolutely not interested in doing a sequel to “Skullcrusher Mountain,” and if I did, it would be a terrible song and you would hate it. And so it just cannot exist, and so. . . . I have always tried to honor what I believe to be my contract as an artist—not to get too highfalutin and to use the word “artist”—but it’s my job to write things that I think are good, And write things that I’m interested in, and pursue and sort of stretch myself and try to explore new themes or new ways the writing or new styles of music or whatever it is a keeps me engaged and interested and hopefully moving forward in some direction, instead of just doing the same thing over and over again.
COULTON: I think that’s important for everybody to do.
SCALZI: Yeah, no, I agree. I mean it’s the thing that people ask me, for example, with Old Man’s War stuff. They’re like, “Well can’t you just write some more stories about John Perry and Jane Sagan?” And I’m like, well I could. And you would pay for them and I would make money, and you would be marginally happy you have a book, but then you would read the book and you would realize that it’s being ground out. And if I’m going to do anything else in that universe it’s going to be something new, something interesting, so that you are not disappointed and I’m not bored.
COULTON: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Those are the two essential components of your job and your career.
SCALZI: Right. Now, very quickly so then we’ll move on. Your tour starts on June 1st, and where’s that going to be?
COULTON: Yeah, so June 1st in Boston. June 2nd in New York. And then we’re in Rochester; Toronto; Pittsburgh; Alexandria, Virginia; Philadelphia; Ann Arbor; Chicago; Minneapolis; San Francisco; Portland; Seattle; and Vancouver.
SCALZI: That’s not a lot.
COULTON: Sure feels like a lot.
SCALZI: All right. Okay. So, folks, we are going to go ahead and close up on the Artificial Heart tour information. And tomorrow, we have something very, very special for you: a brand new song from Jonathan Coulton, science-fiction themed. You’ll be the first people ever anywhere on the planet to hear it. And we will talk about that particular song. Jonathan, are you excited?
COULTON: I’m super excited.
SCALZI: I’m super excited, too. I can’t wait for the rest of you folks to hear it. So come back tomorrow. You’re going to have a really good time. For Tor.com, this is John Scalzi, and we’ll see you tomorrow.